Rubblebucket's Alex Toth: The Cream Interview


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Talking to Rubbletucket’s Alex Toth, it quickly becomes clear that the Brooklyn-based dance-pop octet is nothing if not methodical. As one of the band’s two leaders, along with frontwoman/saxophonist Kalmia Traver (Toth’s life partner), Toth has been instrumental in honing Rubblebucket’s dedication to its craft, which shines through in the band’s exceptionally adroit live show, as well as on the new EP Oversaturated. Arguably Rubblebucket’s biggest leap forward to date in terms of production and style, Oversaturated sees the band venturing further away from its Afrobeat origins into adventurous sonic terrain that touches on New Wave while further establishing the uniqueness and future growth potential of its sound.

While Toth, Traver and their bandmates have done an impeccable job of defining and executing their vision, Toth insists that they have much to learn on the production end. You can see for yourself — and if you attend the show on Friday night (see my Critic's Pick here, and our caption contest here) you’ll also see how the band is so conscious of its live tones that it essentially “produces” itself onstage. Naturally, though a full-length album is on the slate for sometime next year, for now the band prefers to work in EP-sized recording chunks so as to focus on quality over quantity in the studio. Toth, who charmingly refers to production in plural form as “productions,” gave the Cream a sense of the learning curve he’s been on from his high school days, through the time he and Traver spent in Boston reggae band John Brown’s Body and up to now.

Nashville Cream: Kalmia has described your 2011 full-length Omega La La as “the perfect balance between making yourselves happy musically and reaching as many people as possible.” What was it about your earlier approach that didn’t have the same chance of reaching as many people?

Alex Toth: I’m not really sure, and I probably don’t totally agree that Omega La La is the perfect balance of those things. We haven’t really stayed in one place sonically. We started out as jazz kids and have since wrapped our heads around beat production and lots of sound-aesthetic stuff. The biggest change for me has been in songwriting and lyrics, just studying and learning great songs and figuring out what makes them tick. I wish we had even more time than we do to be working on the craft of that. We’re on the road a lot. There’s also a craft to being on the road, but making a record and writing songs is different than performing them convincingly. On Omega La La, the song structures are catchier and the lyrics are less abstract. There’s still some abstract shit on there in terms of the imagery, but it’s a little more direct and cohesive. I guess when we released it, it was what Kalmia said because it was more balanced than our previous stuff.

NC: Your new EP, though, isn’t necessarily a continuation down that same track.

AT: With this band, we started out with a pretty broad Afrobeat concept, where we were disobeying some of the rules of that style. We’ve kept a lot of that. With the new stuff, it’s across the board a little more dark and intense. The drums are really big too. We recorded out in Seattle [at Bear Creek Studio] and had a really great rapport with the producer Ryan Hadlock. The rest of the band was very involved, and it was a nice recording and production process with the whole band up there.

NC: You and Kal have been very hands-on in multiple aspects of the band — the lighting, visuals, fabrics — and you both write most of the material. How do the other guys flesh out the music once you present it to them?

AT: That’s a work in progress. We don’t have this set-in-stone process that we do for everything. We’re feeling things out and are constantly trying to improve on how things are working. The way it’s been is Kal and I will write something and bring it to rehearsal, where some stuff gets tweaked. A lot of times, we’ll road-test the material for a long time, and the arrangements change. When you do songs live a lot, they become much more effective for live audiences. Whether that translates to a recording, I don’t know. I doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to make it a better recording, but in general it’s nice to be able to do it that way. This time, there was a song that was just a demo sketch that Kal had put together, the first single “Oversaturated.” I put the demos online and our bass player Jordan [Brooks] — he’s only been in the band for about a year-and-a-half — was like “We have to do this song!” So we went over to his house and he programmed some drum-machine beats, which is not something we’ve done before. He did some other interesting production, like sparkly bells. We built it up like that, and so when we were in the studio doing it, there was no baggage because we hadn’t played it as a band for months. But we developed it as a band.

It was really nice to be in this playground sort of environment with the guys, but we didn’t have all this baggage from playing it every single night. Once you do that, it becomes hard to be casual about changing stuff. It becomes tough to have a playful perspective on it. We play it one way with the band live, and as a writer you make concessions. You’re like, "It’s not exactly how I heard it in my head, but it’s how these guys wanna play it. And they’re damn good musicians, and they’re doing a damn good job doing it, and the song’s getting delivered." But then when you go to actually document it in the studio, a part of you is holding onto the way you originally heard it. And people get really pissed [laughs]. Even producers. If I’m sitting there with my GarageBand demo of the synth sound, they’re like, “Come on, dude.” With really awesome productions, there’s something playful and even mischievous about how the sounds mess with the listener. But it’s tough to have all eight people in a room making decisions about everything. The best vibe is when you get smaller groups of people here and there and having discussions and working on music. It’s still a work in progress. We’re still figuring out the best way to do it. Up in Seattle, we got into some nice pockets of “yes-yes-yes.” Where every idea is a “yes” and there’s no ego attached to your individual ideas and it’s all energy forward. Attachment to specific outcomes can really stifle the creative process.

NC: When you were younger, and you thought ahead to playing music, how much did you envision back then that you would be at the helm and involved in all the operations?

AT: I’ve always naturally been an organizer. And the person with a vision for how to get from point A to point B. And with ideas about how things should sound, how to connect with audiences and all that. I’ve been organizing bands since high school. I would organize little funny trumpet improv stuff with fellow elementary school trumpet players. Being in John Brown’s Body taught us a whole hell of a lot. I mean, Kal didn’t even think of herself as a diva frontlady when we started Rubblebucket. It was like, "She’s a composer, she has a nice voice, and she has a cool sax concept." We also learned a lot about [the relationship between] drums and bass. Our roommate Nate Edgar is the bass player in John Brown’s Body. I wasn’t into reggae before I was in that band, and now dub reggae is really important to me. In the simplicity of it, there’s a lot of truth to be found — especially the way those guys play it. It’s so tight. It’s an almost spiritual way of playing that sort of groove. As far as writing groove music that’s funky and music that makes people want to move, I definitely learned a lot from that experience.

But I’d never wanted to be a sideman. I always knew I wanted to be a leader and forge something of my own. Do something with Kal that could be wildly creative and have a lot of artistic integrity but connect with a lot of people. Vaguely in my head, I was thinking Bjork and Radiohead. How to do that with where I’d come from musically, I didn’t know. I was just going to do it. So Kal and I were writing horn parts and some dubs for the John Brown’s Body album Amplify [2008]. But we weren’t writing reggae songs. And John Brown’s Body wasn’t touring full-on. In the spaces there, we had an opportunity to pursue our own thing. I had a band called the Lazybirds before Rubblebucket. But Kal and I wanted to write music. It got to the point where a year-and-a-half to two years after we started it — that whole time, we were also in John Brown’s Body — we realized we were losing band members, and that we couldn’t get the momentum we wanted by just having it be this thing that filled in the cracks. It was emotional leaving this band of people that was like my family for three years. By the time we’d left, I felt like we’d forged a really cool thing as a band, but it was something we had to do.

NC: What encouragement did you get from the JBB camp when you set out on your own?

AT: People never want you to leave a band, but Elliot [Martin, bandleader] has always been really supportive of our music, and I mean we live with the bass player now.

NC: You used the term “where I’d come from musically” — where did you come from musically?

AT: I had the trumpet, and from sixth grade to my senior year of high school I was really into classic music like Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. I’d learn guitar solos on the trumpet. Then I got into some weird stuff like the Don Ellis Orchestra’s Electric Bath. He played a quarter-tone trumpet. There were odd time signatures and really abrasive detuned clarinets, but pretty groovy. I started getting into jazz around my junior year of high school. There was some stuff that I just loved right away, like Lee Morgan and some Miles Davis. Other stuff, I had to force myself to listen to. I would force myself to listen almost like you force yourself to eat really healthy food [that doesn’t initially seem appetizing]. I’d listen to a certain amount of Coltrane every day, a certain amount of Eric Dolphy — this stuff that was pretty dense and in-your-face and complex. After doing that for a while, you end up appreciating the beauty and you end up loving it. Like Bitches Brew was a pretty haunting album that stuck with me.

I started working on bebop and hard bop and jazz language stuff. I’d go to jam sessions in Philly and New York City and get my ass kicked. Or, if I did well, it would also inspire me to practice. So from my senior year through four years of college, I really studied jazz harmony and vocabulary a lot. I was also in Latin, Afro-Cuban funk, and experimental rock bands. Kal was by my side for a lot of that. So I was wrapping my head around not only jazz harmony but pretty complex polyrhythms, like montunos and claves, which can initially be hard for a musician to get to where they become second nature. Clave originated in Africa, and a lot of the African music [that influenced clave-based forms] sounds just like a sped-up clave [sings the rhythm over the phone]: It’s like, "duh-duh, d’-d’-duh-duh-duh-d’-d’, duh-duh-duh d’-d’." It was in a lot of the [indigenous] religious music and then it got transferred over [to the Western hemisphere] in slave ships. And then I discovered Afrobeat via Antibalas. Kal and I were always in love with Antibalas. And Kal went to Cuba for a few weeks before it became really difficult. She studied music there pretty deeply. We went to the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico while in school to study the folk rhythms there. It wasn’t until later that I started to get a lot more into checking out productions and thinking deeply about applying new ideas aesthetically to beats and recorded songs and live loops. I’ve always written poetry, but it’s only been over the past few years that I’ve been figuring out ways to turn that imagery into stuff that’s useful for songwriting.

NC: Where in Rubblebucket’s history did you start getting more conscious of production? It sounds like you were already going down that road when Rubblebucket started.

AT: To an extent, but it wasn’t until the album Rubblebucket [2009] that I started to really think about taking the songwriting and the interaction of the instruments to how you want the instruments to sound and where you want them placed. It becomes this whole other visual, painterly way of thinking about music. Ian Hersey, our guitar player, was the one who really brought a lot of that to the table for me. That’s been his whole thing forever. He’s really got a production mind. He got me thinking about that stuff deeply. There’s some artists where their whole thing is bedroom production right off the bat, thinking about that nonstop and not having a live show. With Rubblebucket it was kinda the opposite approach: constantly touring and having that inform the recording direction. But there’s still so much more for us to get together on the production side, as far as being a band that has a developed recording process. It’s been on our minds for a few years.


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